05/31/2009 11:00PM

Black Mamba set to move forward


NEW YORK - The Saturday between Memorial Day and the Belmont Stakes could have come up very light in terms of stakes action, and it would have been understandable. But the stakes schedule is not nearly as soft as you might have feared. Hollywood Park steps up to the plate with a solid renewal of the Grade 1, $250,000 Gamely Stakes, while Woodbine and Belmont Park chip in with Grade 2 offerings, the $300,000 Nassau and the $150,000 Sands Point, respectively. There's a Grade 3, $100,000 stakes doubleheader at Churchill Downs consisting of the Aristides and the Dogwood, with the Grade 3, $100,000 Golden Gate Fields Turf Stakes rounding out Saturday's graded stakes schedule.

Gamely Stakes

One of the good things about this race is that if you like one of the favorites, as I do, there's still a good chance you will get a decent price because there are a lot of different ways for the betting public to go here. Legitimate betting options include Diamond Diva, who narrowly missed in her recent return from a 10-month absence, and whose only previous loss in this country from four starts here was a second in this race last year to the top-class Precious Kitten when she was at the top of her game; Visit, who is bet every time in the expectation she will return to the sharp form she displayed last fall in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and Matriarch; and the one-two-three finishers in the Santa Barbara Handicap - Magical Fantasy, Black Mamba, and Toque de Queda.

Diamond Diva has every right to improve second start back, as underscored by how she improved 8 Beyer points from her first to second starts last year. But I'm still going against her because she had a perfect trip as the odds-on favorite in the Wilshire Handicap four weeks ago and still couldn't close the deal. As for Visit, I gave up waiting for her to show the form she displayed last fall even before yet another disappointing effort in the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard. She was rank under a hard hold early, but had absolutely zero run once she had a clear shot in the stretch. And Toque de Queda ran well when beaten less than a length in the Santa Barbara in her first start in six months, but she had a better trip than the two who finished in front of her.

This event will come down to Magical Fantasy and Black Mamba. They were only a nose apart in the Santa Barbara, and it's hard to say who ran better. Black Mamba managed to finish furiously despite being floated at least seven wide into the stretch. And Magical Fantasy had traffic trouble at a crucial point in the race, which stopped her momentum. But I'm going with Black Mamba because she seems positioned to take the bigger step forward Saturday.

When Black Mamba ran in the Santa Barbara, she was making her first start in four months, whereas Magical Fantasy had the benefit of two useful synthetic track outings this year. Not only does Black Mamba have license to be a tougher customer this time, she moves to a course she clearly likes - she won the Beverly Hills Handicap over the course last summer - while Magical Fantasy moves to a course where she is still seeking her first win.

Wolf Hill Stakes

Smart Enough will be the favorite in this co-feature at Monmouth Park, and no one should be surprised if he scores. He was a narrowly beaten third against tougher company in the Aegon Turf Sprint Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. That was his first race in more than six months, so he's eligible to improve on it, and his barn has excellent numbers, although from a small sample, with horses making their second starts off such layoffs. But I didn't like that he blew a sizable stretch lead after a dream trip that saw him sit on the rail and inherit the lead when the early pacesetter drifted out turning for home. So, I'm taking Awakino Cat over Smart Enough.

Awakino Cat won four of his last five turf sprint starts for outstanding turf sprint trainer Linda Rice, and is an intriguing up-and-comer in this niche division. His only loss among those outings came two starts back in the Turf Dash at Tampa to Castles in the Sky, who was winning for the third time from his last four starts with Beyers of 96, 96, and 99. Awakino Cat not only gained revenge on Castles in the Sky when he won last time out at Gulfstream, the horse who finished fourth behind him came back to win the Lure Stakes at Belmont.

Aristides Stakes

I'm one of those who believes there was a strong rail bias at Churchill on Derby Day (well, for most of Derby week, actually). So I will be happy if Semaphore Man is bet strongly in this race just because when he won the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap last time out, he beat Accredit, who came back to win the Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day. And that is because when Accredit won the Churchill Downs Stakes, he did so riding the crest of that strong rail bias.

I like Sok Sok, whose fifth in the Churchill Downs Stakes can be forgiven because he never was able to get to the rail during that race. But two starts back, Sok Sok showed what he can do when he decisively won the Duncan F. Kenner Stakes over Kodiak Kowboy, who came back to win the Grade 1 Carter in his next start.